Hachette India Posts

The Casual Vacancy, Rowling

The Casual Vacancy, Rowling

The more I read of The Casual Vacancy the more I am amazed at the power of Rowling’s storytelling. How can she make the most mundane, incredibly dull and at times narrow and very class-conscious English life that too in the countryside so fascinating? Why would anyone want to read every single word that graphically describes a run down Council housing estate? Why would anyone be interested in knowing about the silly political wranglings for a silly, inconsequential Parish council seat? Well, it is not inconsequential to the locals.

Rowling for mastery in telling a good story and etching each character with incredible detail and force. Like Hardy before her she has created her own fictional landscape called Pagford. (A combination of Pagnell and Chagford/Forest of Dean.) Her experience in writing the Harry Potter series and writing for young adults has obviously stood her in good stead. The shades of characterisation, the nuances come through remarkably well. While reading the novel you can practically hear the voices, the dialects that so clearly demarcate the people, and immediately discern their attitudes towards each other. She obviously plots her stories well since the characters are well connected and if they ever come in contact with each other (however briefly) there is a transformation that helps in moving the story forward.

The novel is in the good old tradition of an English novel (particularly in the second half) the reader begins to yearn for a good bit of editing. Of course the novel lends itself to be adapted for ( or rights to be sold) the stage, television, radio and cinema. There is scope for serialisation too. Novels like this written by Dickens would be acceptable since they were first published in serial form and then compiled into a book, so the length was accounted for. Whereas in this case to have so many little details, conversations and minor plots intertwined can begin to get tedious. In India 80,000 copies of this novel were printed by Hachette India. Apparently it is the highest run for an (expensive) adult hardback (and its not a thriller or mass market genre). But the story (coming from Rowling) was probably unexpected since her fans wanted more of Potter. This is diametrically opposite. A tragi-comedy set in a nondescript and typical English village.

PrintWeek India did a photo-essay on the printing of these copies. Here is the link by the group editor, Ramu Ramunathan. http://www.printweek.in/Feature/318531,manipal-technologies-first-print-firm-in-asia-to-print-a-j-k-rowling-bestseller.aspx

12 Oct 2012

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

“Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century” Eric Hobsbawm

Fractured Times

Fractured Times is a series of lectures delivered by Eric Hobsbawm at the annual Salzburg Festival. Those published in this book, were written between 1964-2012. (He died on 1 Oct 2012.) This is a book of reflections, thoughts and comments about what happened to culture and society, especially after 1914, a society and a time that was never to return. These lectures document the tectonic shifts that occurred in the cultural fabric of society. The devastating impact that the two world wars had on society was fundamental. Hobsbawm’s basic premise is that the art and cultural fabric of a society are inextricably linked to politics. It is impossible to dissociate one from the other. ( “For enjoyment of art is not purely a private experience, but a social one, sometimes even a political one, especially in the case of planned public performances i purpose-built settings and theatres.”) So post-1914 the society (at least in Europe and UK) was transformed in that the women’s movements flourished ( ironically a country that had two powerful women on its throne, did not give its women citizen’s even the basic rights. The suffragettes had to demand it), the publishing of books developed into an industry with the establishment of some of the biggest trade publishers such as Allen Lane’s Penguin Books, the first oral history societies were founded in the late 1960s ( “Studies of historical memory are essentially not about the past, but about the retrospect to it of some subsequent present.”) and education. His views on the publishing industry are fascinating — “The book, revolutionised in the 1930s by Penguin and Gollancz, was almost certainly the most effective form of intellectual diffusion: not to the mass of the manual working class for whom the word ‘book’ still meant ‘magazine’, but to the old educated and the rapidly growing body of the aspiring and politically conscious self-educated.”. Or earlier in the book, he says “Even a good deal of literature, especially the classics, remains in print, and much good new writing is published that would never pass the profit threshold set by the accountants, because of non-market decisions.”

There are plenty of nuggets of wisdom that have been distilled and delivered in these lectures. Here is a man who thought, analysed and presented with confidence. Every single book of his is a treasure trove. The ease with which he presents history, complex ideas without their seeming to be so, and his analysis is always a delight to read. For instance his reflection upon how the fashion industry more or less predicts the trends for the following season accurately, but the book trade bumbles its way through. And yet both are heavily dependent upon markets that formed by subjectivity and at times irrational sensibilities. So why does one industry get it right over and over again and not the other? Hobsbawm’s comments on the relationship between the market and culture are sharp and precise. “From the point of view of the market, the only interesting culture is the product or service that makes money.” In his opinion, post-1970s the wealth available for nurturing the arts has grown explosively, all though it does come with a lot of provisos. But he also cautions the rapid transformation that the cyber-age has wrought. It is “so fast, so dramatic, and so unforseeable”. The chapter on “Why hold festivals in the twenty-first century?” has to be read. Hobsbawm is convinced that festivals are multiplying like rabbits. According to him, “festivals have become a firm component of the economically ever more important complex of the entertainment industry, and particularly of cultural tourism, which is rapidly expanding, at least in the prosperous societies of the so-called ‘developed’ world…there is a great deal of money to be made these days in the culture business.” For him “the genealogy of today’s festivals begins with the discovery of the stage as the cultural-political and social expression of a new elite that is self-assured and bourgeois, or rather recruited according to education and ability instead of birth.”

In a similar fashion “in the post-industrial age of information, the school — that is, secondary an tertiary education and beyond — is more decisive than every before, and forms, both nationally and worldwide, a unifying element, not only in technology, but also in the formation of classes….What is needed is a usable educational programme aimed at the community of educable youth, not only within a country or a cultural circle, but also worldwide. This guarantees, at least within a particular area of intellectual cultures, a certain universalism both of information and of cultural values, a sort of basic stock of things that an ‘educated person’ should know.”

Eric Hobsbawm was a thinker. As Julia Hobsbawm says about her father in the FT — “Food he could do without; ideas not.” ( Financial Times, April 2013. http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/2/0dbd14de-a7c0-11e2-9fbe-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2VL2W2xf6 ) A man like him will be sorely missed. Fractured Times, his last book to be published is like the others before it, worth reading over and over again. Every time there is something new to be discovered in the lectures.

Eric Hobsbawm Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group, Hachette India, 2013. Hb. pg 320. Rs. 699

Aryavarta Chronicles 1:Govinda, Krishna Udayasankar, interviewed on 9 Aug 2012, Delhi

Aryavarta Chronicles 1:Govinda, Krishna Udayasankar, interviewed on 9 Aug 2012, Delhi

Krishna Udayasankar The Aryavarta Chronicles, Book 1: Govinda
Hachette India, 2012. Pb, Rs. 350. pp. 458

Early in August I met Krishna Udayasankar in Delhi. She was here for the launch of her debut novel, Govinda. Krishna is a lawyer and based in Singapore, living with her husband and two huskies. She writes although she has a day job as a lecturer at Nanyang Business School. She has a PhD in Business (Strategic Management). According to her, “I write whenever I can – i.e. any available moment. My typical ‘work’ day starts around noon (unless I have classes or meetings in the morning) after a round at the gym, and it goes on past midnight. Of this day, whatever time is not spent on teaching, prep and other university-related duties I try to write, or do research and other things book-related. But lest I sound too hard-working, let me confess that I spend a lot of this time online on FB or mail, passing it off as ‘work’, I do however try to write every day, even for just a few minutes, as a matter of discipline.”

Govinda is the first in the Aryavarta Chronicles, a new version of the Mahabharata. The difference being that in her story, Krishna’s characters come across as ordinary mortals who have to face extraordinary challenges. Plus the women characters are far more strongly etched than ever before. She admits that there are “no passive characters” in her book. (No surprises there, especially a) the canon of contemporary literature that relies heavily upon the epics like Chitra Bannerjee Divakurni’s The Palace of Illusions did set a trend and b) meeting Krishna, who is a feisty and strong personality herself.) In her introduction the author is quick to affirm that these chronicles “are neither reinterpretation or retelling”. She would prefer to term her book as mytho-history. This is an excerpt from an email exchange where we discussed the terminology:

The most oft-quoted definitions of mytho-history trace back to Prof. Mohammed Arkoun (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammed_Arkoun ), who is credited with having developed a theory of mytho-history and mytho-ideology. Of course, while the processes that we define as mytho-history are age-old ones, in modern times Prof. Arkoun is credited with giving it theoretical definition, as well as practical application.

It is a more sociological or anthropological sense to describe the process or body of myths that have become part of the collective history of a people and their culture — particularly origin-stories or tales that explain why or how the world around them is the way it is — prevailing norms and cultures. For example, in India, many people believe — irrespective of historical evidence or otherwise — that the characters of the Mahabharata did exist, though with powers and abilities that would today be considered super-normal, such as extended lifespans. By rationalizing what may be abnormal (it was another Yuga, evil has since diminished humanity, etc.) there is an attempt to preserve a logical engagement, which becomes less necessary when we talk of ‘pure myth’.

What I try to capture when I use the word is not just the phenomenon, the attempt at logic that distinguished the narrative from pure myth, but also the rationale. I do so by asking why are the certain stories that become mytho-histories while others remain pure myth. Again, to illustrate by example, we do we never quite ‘believe’ that some of the events described in the Vedas happened the way they did, choosing instead to interpret them as spiritual verse or even mystical metaphor?; possibly because the parts of the Vedas are not historical accounts, but a collection of scientific Arcanum, carefully disguised as metaphor in a bid to protect knowledge (or the keepers thereof). The Mahabharata, on the other, contains the categorical assertion as part of its text that it is history – or was history contemporaneous to its composition.

So, what I mean by myth-history, though perhaps an anthropologist may take exception: Mytho-history is that body of narrative that may well have had enough historical evidence in support of it in the past, to find an enduring place in culture, but today lacks sufficient evidence to be presented as historical fact – even though its half-sister, mythology, is able to recollect the finer details.

Govinda is an example of commercial fiction with a decent print run. Based upon the initial reports from the market, it seems that Krishna’s fast paced story is selling well (and deservedly so!). I met a bookseller two days ago who had displayed the book prominently at his shop and was hoping the sequel would arrive soon. If that is the case, then the author has achieved her intention of getting the reader to engage with the novel even if it is to disagree.

28 August 2012

Ox-Tales, Profile books

Ox-Tales, Profile books

This is a comment I wrote to a friend who asked, “I was looking for a good book of modern short stories – European and or American. preferably written in the last 10 years. could you recommend anything?” There is a set of four anthologies called Ox-Tales, published by Profile Books and Oxfam. It consists of 38 short stories by contemporary writers. I think it is a mixed bag, but sounds very promising. I am itching to read it. It should be available in India soon, if not already. Hachette India is now representing Profile Books Ltd in India. Some of the authors are: Kate Atkinson, Beryl Bainbridge, William Boyd, Jonathan Buckley, Jonathan Coe, Geoff Dyer, Michel Faber, Sebastian Faulks, Helen Fielding, Giles Foden, Esther Freud, Xialou Guo, Mark Haddon, Zoë Heller, Victoria Hislop, A.L. Kennedy, Hari Kunzru, Hanif Kureishi, John le Carré, Marina Lewycka, Alexander McCall Smith, Michael Morpurgo, David Park, DBC Pierre, Ian Rankin, Vikram Seth, Nicholas Shakespeare, Kamila Shamsie, Lionel Shriver, Helen Simpson, Ali Smith, William Sutcliffe, Rose Tremain, Joanna Trollope, Louise Welsh, and Jeanette Winterson.

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